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February 19, 2004

Should Pitt have point person for GLBT issues?

Should Pitt designate an administrator — say, someone in the Provost’s office — to serve as point person for issues involving gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and transgendered (GLBT&T) members of the University community?

A University Senate committee chairperson said she will explore that question with Jack L. Daniel, vice provost and dean of students.

Members of the Senate’s educational policies committee asked SEPC chairperson Evelyn O. Talbott to contact Daniel after meeting Feb. 17 with three representatives of Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance student organization.

Alliance president Monica R. Higgins and immediate past president Joshua Ferris said GLBT&T students come to their group by default for advice and to report incidents of harassment, not knowing where else to turn here for help.

Ferris said one closeted gay student told him he’d given in to his RA’s request for oral sex out of fear that the RA would “out” him if he refused. Another gay student claimed that a fellow student, whom he knew, pulled a knife on him and called him a faggot while he was out walking with another gay man in Oakland.

Neither victim would go to the Pitt police, fearing that the incidents would be reported to their parents and The Pitt News, according to Ferris.

He cited one more case history: that of an Egyptian student who has come out of the closet since enrolling at Pitt. “Now, he’s afraid of being killed when he goes home,” Ferris said. “What do I tell him? We’re not experts on amnesty law.”

Ferris said Rainbow Alliance leaders try to calm students’ fears, urging them to report harassment incidents to the police and seek help at Pitt’s Counseling Center and Student Health Services.

Alliance members also hold occasional consciousness-raising sessions with Pitt police, freshman studies groups and School of Engineering students through that school’s peer counseling program, said Ferris and Higgins.

But the Rainbow Alliance lacks the resources and expertise to be a really effective first point of contact for troubled GLBT&T students, they told SEPC.

“I have limited time to meet with people and limited knowledge of the city of Pittsburgh because I’m not from here,” Higgins lamented.

Ferris recommended that Pitt follow the examples of Penn State, Penn and some other Association of American Universities schools and name an administrator to focus on GLBT&T issues and monitor reports of anti-gay harassment. A “strong-arm person in the Provost’s office” would be best, Ferris suggested, “someone who can look at the whole University community and at issues that cross every border within the University.”

Another Rainbow Alliance member, Samuel Buelow, told SEPC he’s had mixed experiences at Pitt since beginning the transition from being female to male.

Most of the nurses he’s seen at the Student Health Clinic have been “very understanding” about his sex change, Buelow said, continuing to provide gynecological checkups while administering prescribed testosterone injections.

Buelow, whose first name still appears on class rosters as “Hanna,” said Pitt faculty have responded with “unanimously positive support” when he’s told them privately about his gender change.

“My professors have been wonderful. I was nervous that someone would have a problem” with his change of name and sex, Buelow said, “but that hasn’t been the case.”

On the other hand, Buelow said that when he mentioned his gender change to a Pitt Counseling Center staffer during a scheduled session to discuss his problems with depression, she snapped: “You didn’t come here to talk about that!”

“I was taken aback and intimidated,” Buelow said.

—Bruce Steele

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